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Goddess in the Wheel of the Year
by Linde

Imbolc 2003, Vol 2-2
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Snake & Spiral Mounds
Snake - Spiral Mounds
Copyright © 2003 Emmie Laurie Harrison
Imbolc: The Goddess from the Mound
On the day of Bride of the white hills,
The noble queen will come from the knoll,
I will not molest the noble queen,
Nor will the noble queen molest me.
(Notes, Ortha 70, Carmina Gadelica, Alexander Carmichael, 1900)

On February 1, the Goddess emerges from her winter mound as the Snake Goddess. The Snake Goddess symbolizes the transformative element of the Goddess and heralds change – such as spring renewal.

Celtic Knotwork Snake Pair
Celtic Knotwork Snakes
Copyright © 2003 Emmie Laurie Harrison.

Since prehistoric times, the Snake Goddess has been a sign of the emergence of spring. People of the Neolithic Era carved images of snakes on bone and antlers. Artifacts have been discovered which show images of snakes together with other symbols of spring such as salmon, flowers and nesting birds. Prehistoric people would have seen snakes emerge from their hibernation in early spring and form pairs to breed. They represented this imagery in their art and probably incorporated it into their myths and rituals. Indeed, these beliefs are reflected in the folklore of the cultures that followed.

The Celts viewed the goddess, Brigid, as a snake who emerged from her mound on February 1, the first day of the Celtic spring. As the 'Two-faced One', Brigid was depicted with one side of her face old and rugged, and the other young and beautiful, reflecting the crone and the maiden. In Scottish tradition, Brigid was associated with the coming of spring, when she ousts the winter reign of the crone goddess Cailleach. As the snake emerging from hibernation, she replaces the crone of winter. Irish myth includes stories of the transformation of the Goddess from crone to maiden with the embrace of the hero, symbolizing the sacred marriage.

RibinThe role of Brigid was taken over by the Catholic St. Brigit. St. Brigit’s Day is celebrated on February 1. Rituals associated with St. Brigit’s Day show her to be an aspect of the Snake Goddess. A silk headband, known as a Ribin, was left out overnight to grow longer. It was then used to cure headaches. The Ribin represents the linear Snake Goddess in her role of healer. In the 1880s, Alexander Carmichael recorded another custom -- the pounding of a chunk of peat in a stocking (an effigy of the serpent). As the peat was pounded, the following verse was recited:

This is the day of Bride,
The queen will come from the mound,
I will not touch the queen,
Nor will the queen touch me.
(Notes, Ortha 70, Carmina Gadelica, Alexander Carmichael, 1900
This custom points to an earlier tradition of honoring the snake as she emerged from the mound. It was believed that the Goddess would look with favor on those who did not harm her sacred snake. Over the years, the tradition changed from honoring the Snake Goddess to destroying the sacred snake, yet still retaining the protective verse. The emergence of the snake from its winter burrows was also associated with the prediction of weather for the coming year. In Scotland, it was believed that good weather on St. Bride’s Day would mean that winter conditions would last longer.

In Switzerland, serpents are also associated with spring. The Grimm Brothers relate Swiss folklore that describes dragons and serpents flying out of their mountain caves with the coming of spring.

green snake approaching bowl of milk on cottage floor
Grass snake and bowl of milk
Copyright © 2003 Terry L. H. Brumley

The Lithuanians showed reverence to Saule, their sun Goddess, by taking care of her sacred green snake. Saule was depicted as a woman pouring light from a jug. She wore a crown with a snake on it, symbolizing fertility and abundance. She would be generous to families who treated her snake with kindness. To kill a snake was sacrilege to the goddess, who would weep upon seeing a dead snake.

On January 25, the Lithuanians celebrated the "Day of Serpents" as the beginning of the renewal of life with the spring. On that day, people prepared dishes for the snakes and invited them into the homes. The behavior of the snakes would predict how prosperous the year would be. If the snakes emerged and tasted the food, the year would be prosperous. If not, there would be misfortune in the family.

Predictions about the coming year by the behavior of snakes can also be found in practices of the ancient Greeks. At a sanctuary at Epirus in northwest Greece, a naked priestess would offer food to the snakes kept at the sanctuary. If the snakes ate the food, the year would be abundant. However, if they did not take the food, and frightened the priestess, there would be scarcity in the coming year. The belief in the ability of the Snake Goddess to predict the future can be traced to the Python at Delphi, the sanctuary which originally belonged to the Earth Goddess, Gaea.

black snake and fallen leaves
Black Snake
Photo © Christopher Anderson. Used with permission.

The emergence of the Snake Goddess from her winter mound may be the forerunner of Groundhog Day, celebrated on February 2. This custom was brought to America by German immigrants in the 1700s as a Candlemas tradition. On this day, another hibernating animal, the groundhog, is believed to predict the weather based on whether it sees and is frightened by its shadow. Groundhog Day would be a good time to reflect on our own “shadow”, and embrace our own alter ego, rather than being frightened by it, bringing an early renewal of life. The message of the Snake Goddess, whether Medusa, Lilith, Wadjet, Manasa, Mami Wata, or Brigid, is to get in touch with our dual nature, balancing fascination and fear.

+ Campbell, Joseph. The Masks of God: Occidental Mythology. New York: The Viking Press, 1964.
+ Carmichael, Alexander. Carmina Gadelica. Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press. Volume 1 of the six volumes of the Carmina Gadelica can be found on the Internet here. Information on Bride is in the Notes, Ortha 70, including the Gaelic versions of the Bride hymns.
+ Dames, Michael. Mythic Ireland. London: Thames and Hudson Ltd., 1992.
+ Gimbutas, Marija. The Civilization of the Goddess: The World of Old Europe. New York: Harper Collins, 1991.
+ Grimm, Jakob Ludwig Karl. The German Legends of the Brothers Grimm. Volume I. Edited and translated by Donald Ward. Philadelphia: Institute for the Study of Human Issues, 1981.
+ Marshack, Alexander. The Roots of Civilization: The Cognitive Beginnings of Man’s First Art, Symbol and Notation. New York, Moyer Bell Limited, 1991.

Graphics Credits
+ Snake & Spiral Mounds, and Celtic Knotwork Snakes, Copyright © 2003 Emmie Laurie Harrison (staff artist). All rights reserved.
+ Ribin, Copyright © 2003 Sage Starwalker. All rights reserved.
+ Grass snake and bowl of milk,
Copyright © 2003 Terry L. H. Brumley (staff artist). All rights reserved.
+ Black Snake, Photo © Christopher Anderson. Used with permission.

Contributors retain the copyright to their work; please do not take art or words without permission. All other graphics and reference materials are used and attributed as per the Fair Use Provision of The Copyright Act and individual terms of use.
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